Tunisian rights group is at the fore in Mideast. League's voice heard in area where activism is often frowned upon

When Dr. Saadeddin Zmerli, a highly respected Tunisian physician, was working in Algeria years ago, he had an experience that changed his life. In the middle of the night, he was blindfolded, arrested, and taken to prison during a governmental coup. Though he was released unharmed shortly afterward, the episode showed him how vulnerable individual human rights are to government abuse. Today, Dr. Zmerli is president of a rather uncommon organization, the Tunisian League of Human Rights.

Human rights activists in the Middle East often find that governments want nothing to do with them, at best, and often actively persecute them.

Algeria, for example, had until recently imprisoned human rights activists or sent them into internal exile. That country now permits only one human rights group to operate legally. Egypt somewhat gingerly hosts an Arab Human Rights Organization, but has refused in the past to let it hold its general assembly in Cairo. In Sudan and Mauritania, human rights groups are just beginning to form.

Tunisia has tolerated the league, Western observers believe, because it enhances the image of moderation the country has abroad. Yet Tunisia recently rejected Amnesty International's request to open an office in Tunis, even though, according to Amnesty's charter, that office would not deal with local cases.

Recently, the Tunisian league has begun to have problems with the government. One of the group's most important functions is to meet with officials at the Ministry of the Interior to discuss human rights cases. But when the league protested against the wave of arrests during a recent crackdown on Muslim fundamentalism, the interior minister accused it of becoming a ``partisan body.'' For the past six weeks, the Ministry has refused to receive its delegations.

The Tunisian League of Human Rights is the oldest and perhaps most effective human rights organization in the Arab world. Begun in 1977 under impetus from the human rights initiatives of United States' President Jimmy Carter, it now has over 3,000 members and receives a thousand requests a year to intervene in human rights cases.

The league's 25-member executive board represents all important political groupings: President Habib Bourguiba's ruling Destourian Socialist Party, Islamic fundamentalists, and members of opposition parties, including the Tunisian Communist Party. It is the only institution in the country where those of all political persuasions sit down and negotiate.

``It's a school for democracy,'' says Zmerli. ``It's a group that works. Whatever disagreements we may have, we sit around the table and discuss them, and arrive at decisions.''

After nationwide bread riots in January 1984, during which as many as 150 people died, the league created an independent investigative commission and submitted a report to the prime minister. Western observers credit the league's report with moderating the government's reaction to the crisis. The league has also protested both anti-Semitic attacks against Tunisia's Jewish community and Israel's October 1985 bombing of the Palestinian headquarters near Tunis.

The league's current priority is to limit the detention period for Tunisians imprisoned without charge by the government. Under current law, they can be detained indefinitely. It is also urging the government to revise the restrictive law regulating the formation of associations, and its press code, which allows virtually unlimited censorship at the authorities' discretion.

Sometimes, the group even takes stands that bring it into conflict with Islamic law and sensibilities.

Though Islam forbids Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, the league supports the right of Tunisian women to choose their husbands freely. It opposes corporal punishment, permitted in the Koran.

Critics and even some members of the league itself worry that opposition voices in the country, with no other outlet to express themselves, will try to transform the league into a platform for the political opposition. The league has tried to avoid that by insisting on a consensus vote on all proposals and by ensuring it has a membership with the widest possible representation of political viewpoints.

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